Talent Management Lessons From The World Cup – The Top Five Action Items (Learning from sports industries)

The “professional sports model” is the next step in the evolution of corporate talent management. So given that the FIFA World Cup is currently underway. It’s now appropriate for corporate leaders to devote some of their strategic thinking time to understanding how the top global football teams reach such extraordinary performance results by managing their talent differently. 

The Top Five Talent Approaches That Businesses Should Borrow From World Cup Teams

My research has found that there are five critical action areas that corporations can and should adopt from the world’s most successful football/soccer teams. Those best practice areas are presented below in rank order.

  1. Concentrate your recruitment on top-priority positions – the most critical talent lesson to learn from World Cup teams is that not all positions have an equal impact on results and winning. Almost everyone in either sports or business that has done research into the value of prioritization has found that there are usually only a handful of positions that provide this maximum impact. In World Cup football, those positions are usually the manager, a striker for offense, and the goalie for defense (e.g., Morocco’s Bono). In the corporate world, the highest impact positions guide the rest of the team in high-priority functional areas. Like sales, revenue generation, product development, marketing, technology, and customer service. Position prioritization adds an extra benefit because recruiting the best to high-priority positions is a major attraction factor for those seeking related positions. Unfortunately, HR executives consistently make a serious error by resisting any position prioritization in recruiting. So that the most impactful positions fail to receive priority treatment. You can learn more details about implementing corporate position prioritization by clicking here.
  1. Performance analytics lead the way to championships – relying on analytics now occurs at every club and international football level. In fact, the very best club teams (i.e., Liverpool of the Premier League) have turned to performance analytics to win a championship after a long drought. FIFA has also jumped on the analytics and technology bandwagon by embedding a tracking computer chip into the soccer ball that will be used in every game. And most (but not all) of the top-performing teams have finally begun the shift away from intuition. And towards relying on data to improve player recruiting, fitness, injury reduction, skill development, player placement, and even game tactics and strategies (including penalty shot placement). Every elite professional football team now employs data scientists, math experts, and even physicists to help make sense of all of this newly gathered information. And some, like Liverpool, have even developed the holy grail of analytics… predictive models. Incidentally, MLB (and its SABR metrics) utilize the most advanced talent analytics across every industry (sports or non-sports). Learn more about Baseball metrics by clicking here. And what’s wrong with most HR metrics by clicking here.
  1. Superstar talent add great value – if you look closely at most of the teams that have progressed to the later World Cup rounds. Almost all of them have one football icon on their team’s offense (i.e., Messi, Renaldo, Mbappe, or Kane). Or as a goalie on defense and/or serving as their manager. It’s important to realize that it’s not just the performance of these superstar individuals in key positions that make the team highly successful. But it’s also the fact that these icons are a tremendous recruiting draw for others. And because they make other teammates better by acting as a role model to follow. These icons also add hope, energy, and excitement for the rest of the team and the fans. HR needs to do its part by publicizing and celebrating these icons’ contributions as part of the organization’s employment brand.
  1. Use only scientifically validated selection criteria to choose candidates during recruiting positions – even in a profession that emphasizes youth and the athletic ability that comes with it. It’s a mistake to reject a potential teammate because of the use of an intuitive but invalid screening factor like age. Because although some World Cup superstars are relatively young, Mbappe is 23. Many others like Messi, Renaldo, Neymar, and both Croatia’s and Morocco’s fabulous game-saving goalies are all 30+. Obviously, if a team like Argentina were to use height as a primary selection criteria, the team wouldn’t have 5 foot 7 Messi on their roster. Instead, the recommended selection approach (both in football and in the corporate world) is to use data to determine precisely which factors do and do not lead to superior performance in each prioritized job. 
  1. Manage top-performing employees as unique individuals – after filling your critical positions with the best-performing talent that you can afford. HR must then abandon its traditional incessant focus on treating all employees exactly the same. This is because top performers really are different from average performers. And as a result, in a performance culture, they expect and need different things if you want to get the most performance out of the entire team. Start by proactively letting everyone on the team know which positions are to receive priority treatment (and why), as well as how this prioritized treatment will also help both your customers and every individual employee (by increasing your team’s chances of success). This priority treatment should include providing them with the most support, resources, management/executive/coworker time, and the best recruiting and development support. Part of this personalized treatment should include identifying their motivators and managing them using the approaches that have historically been the most effective on them. Obviously, any priority treatment should be reduced whenever the individual in the position is no longer performing at the expected level. It’s also important, of course, at the same time not to let the remaining employees unnecessarily feel that they don’t serve an important role. 

Some Additional Talent Lessons From World Cup Teams

In addition to the five primary action areas highlighted above. The highest-impact football players also have skills and capabilities that are also essential in the corporate world. Those shared capabilities include self-motivation, continuous learning, teamwork, leadership, innovation, adaptability, and the ability to work with diverse teammates. 

If you only do one thing begin a simple approach to position prioritization by asking the general manager of each of your top strategic business units to name the job that has the highest impact on whether they meet their goals. Then prioritize those jobs so that they are assigned the very best recruiters. And then track to see if the recruiting for those jobs measurably improves.

Final Thoughts

Literally decades ago, I was asked to outline “The Future of Talent Management” in a talk at Google headquarters. Then, as now, I projected that the future of talent management would follow the “professional sports model.” 

Unfortunately, the acceptance of that eventuality in recruiting and HR has been slow to come. This resistance has been strong because many in HR instantly dismiss “sports analogies” as not applicable in the corporate world (even though CEOs frequently use them). However, these naysayers need to realize that World Cup football is a $7.5 billion-dollar industry with the same need to dominate every other competitor that is present in their own industry. So, consider adopting the five talent management approaches that were highlighted here. Or conduct your own analysis in order to identify the critical talent success factors of the best World Cup teams. Because by understanding and adapting these critical success factors. You can build up a competitive talent advantage. Long before other corporations also begin learning from these extraordinary performing teams. And catch up. 

Author’s Note 

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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